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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
October 26, 2007

Pride membership flap comes to a boil

Board circled wagons when new group came on strong

Cleveland--Tensions between the board of Cleveland Pride and factions of the community who want changes in the organization have lessened after a productive meeting on October 17.

Matters came to a head with an October 11 email sent to many people by Joshua Dudeck, a photographer who has been on the annual June festival’s planning committee for over a year.

The issue that brought his communiqué was a proposed change to the Pride bylaws that would have eliminated the general membership category, leaving Pride’s board members to be elected by other board members.

Many organizations select their board members this way, and a similar change to the Cleveland LGBT Center’s bylaws brought little resistance last year. But Pride’s change was immediately assailed and is now postponed, partly because of doubt over who is eligible to vote on it.

Although anyone who comes to meetings is part of the Pride planning committee, to be considered a member of Pride such as Dudeck, an individual must attend three planning committee meetings, volunteer for Pride on the day of the parade and festival, and pay a $5 membership fee.

However, the fee had been waived for a while, and some people argued that the organization had done a shoddy job of keeping track of who was present at meetings.

Further complicating the issue was a group of players in the North Coast Athletics Volleyball league who volunteered in the beer garden at this year’s festival.

When they went to the volunteer sign-in desk, they were mistakenly told it was not needed and to just go to the beer garden. Of the group, only Doug Anderson pressed the issue hard enough to be allowed to sign in, so only he officially fulfills that requirement.

A week and a half after the festival, a group of people, including some volleyball players, presented the June 27 Pride meeting with a petition calling for a special meeting. It also called for a vote on a slate of candidates to fill vacant board seats, which were being held open for more diverse applicants.

Of the 14 petition signers, only seven were judged by the board to be valid general members--a category that contains 28 people in total, including the 12 board members. This led to questions about which of the requirements for membership were being followed.

New ideas, or reinventing the wheel?

These problems were compounded by a perception that the Pride board was not open to new people and ideas.

“I don’t like the way the planning committee has been run and it does need to change,” said Dudeck, “and I’ve been talking to people on the board and I’ve constantly gotten the same response: We’ve tried it in the past and it doesn’t work.”

Pride coordinator Brynna Fish said that Dudeck’s suggestion to have planning subcommittees meet separately has been used in the past, but the low turnout at Pride meetings this year makes it unfeasible.

“That’s an ideal structure,” she said. “This past year, we didn’t have the critical mass to do that.”

To criticism about the board’s response to suggestions in general, Fish noted, “There’s a balance we try to strike so people who have an idea or a question, they feel validated and get a response. There are no stupid ideas or questions.”

“On the other hand,” she continued, “folks need to understand that their idea or suggestion is something that might have been tried” already, in the event’s 18 years. “We have a strong history, if we know there’s just no way that can work, please trust us. Folks need to understand that we’re not recreating the wheel. We have a really strong festival and it took us time to get to that.”

Tax records requested

Two weeks after the petition was presented, Jeff Axberg, a member of the volleyball league who signed it and was one of the board candidates on its slate, sent a registered letter to the Pride committee.

He requested copies of their articles of incorporation, application for non-profit status and tax returns, all of which are required by law to be made available. He also requested other information, including Pride’s relationship with the Cleveland LGBT Center, the names of volunteers who handled paying out or receiving money from vendors, and the terms of Fish’s contract.

Axberg also sent a separate letter asking about the status of the petition for a special meeting to elect new board members.

“We just wanted them to fill the five vacancies and let us help them out,” he said. “It was brought up that this was a takeover attempt. I literally stood up and said: If you look at the number of the people who are on the board, filling five positions, they wouldn’t have the numbers to take over Pride.”

“It was never intended to do that. It was intended to help out,” Axberg said. He also requested that his name be removed from the slate of board candidates.

‘It seemed like a hostile takeover’

Dudeck, who was at the June 27 meeting when the petition was submitted, said that it did look bad from Pride’s perspective.

“When I was at that meeting and that group came in and tried to force a change, I was totally outraged,” he said. “It seemed like a hostile takeover.”

“Looking back on it, it looked bad, they seemed to do it forcefully,” he continued. “They could have done it better, but it shouldn’t have scared the board enough to circle the wagons that much.”

Fish echoed Dudeck’s sentiment.

“Had they come to us by phone call or come up to us at the meeting and said, ‘Hey, we’re here because we now, from a distance, have observed some things going on at Pride at the board level and the committee level and at the festival where we think we can help you all,’ they would have been absolutely welcome,” she said. “Instead, what they did was very antagonistic, it was very aggressive.”

“The way they delivered their message, it pretty immediately escalated into a power struggle instead of getting to the root of what now it seems like their intention was, which is to genuinely get involved,” she concluded.

After he sent a second batch of letters at the end of August, Axberg received Pride’s articles of incorporation, registration for non-profit status and their IRS Form 990 non-profit tax returns.

While Pride was under no legal obligation to provide the rest of the material, Axberg believes that they should have anyway, in the interests of transparency.

In debt after the festival

The questions about Pride’s finances emerged because the festival was around $20,000 in debt after this year’s event. Fish noted that it is not uncommon for large events to carry debt for a while, as some of the money promised through sponsorships and other avenues may not yet have been paid, but that arrangements have been made for payment of their vendors.

“It’s the first time in 20 years that we’ve been in the red altogether, but not the first time the festival itself lost money,” she said. She added that some of this year’s expansions, like the casino tent and the pre-Pride cruise suggested by people at planning committee meetings, did not bring in the returns they had hoped.

“We tried to grow the event this year, like with the casino area,” board president Alex Leopold commented. “It was a lot of little things like that.”

One of the ideas to get the debt paid off is to begin the sponsorship process earlier in this cycle, possibly bringing in more money. Fish noted on October 23 that she had already received commitments from corporate sponsors for $10,000.

A more conciliatory tone, now

While all of these issues seemed insurmountable, the October 17 meeting took a more conciliatory tone. Leopold was very businesslike, and the 27 people who attended went through their ideas in a straightforward manner before board vice president Keli Zehnder broached the topic of Dudeck’s e-mail, bringing an hour of discussion, almost always civil, though at times contentious.

AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland executive director Earl Pike came to the meeting to satisfy his curiosity. He ended up playing peacemaker, leading to speculation later that he might serve as a mediator between the board and the dissidents.

However, that role now appears to be unnecessary. Todd Saporito, one of the volleyball league members interested in Pride, met with Zehnder on October 20 and discussed the situation for two hours. They reached an amicable middle ground.

“She proposed a strategy of attack on this and I agreed wholeheartedly,” Saporito said. “I loved her approach.”

He said that Zehnder seemed to have a more open mindset than some of the other members of the board, which made her a fitting envoy.

“It may sound odd to the outside world,” he said, referring to a heated exchange between the two of them at the October 17 meeting, “but we have never had anything other than a polite, direct conversation with each other.”

“We had a ‘Let’s meet at the coffee shop and have a conversation’ talk,” Zehnder confirmed. “I don’t think anybody is willing to have this deteriorate to eating our own. We have to work together to have the festival get off the ground. It doesn’t get off the ground by itself.”

“You have the opportunity here to grow the festival, or shoot the festival in the foot,” she continued. “I hope the festival gets bigger and better and fabulous, but if you deny the difficulties in going forward, it’s destined to fail.”

Bylaw changes postponed

Zehnder said that she believes the bylaw changes are dead for the moment, but would most likely be picked up again after the more immediate issue, electing new board members at the November 7 annual meeting at the Western Reserve Historical Society.

“I believe that has been tabled,” she said. “That is the conversation that Alex and I had, because, not that Pride has done anything wrong, but it’s all about perception, and we’re not willing to do something that the community perceives as unfair, unjust, unwarranted. The bylaw conversation will become the responsibility of the next board.”

“I am confident that everybody is going to figure out how to work together in this situation,” she continued. “I think that it has been handled poorly on both sides. I’m sure everybody would change the way they behaved if this happened again.”

“I believe that is true on both sides of this situation, and I don’t even like to use ‘sides,’ ” she noted. “At this point, Pride’s focus is to establish, empanel, whatever term you want to use, a functioning board that will be able to put on an amazing festival for our 20th anniversary. Everybody seems to be in agreement that that is the goal.”

“Everybody is aware that not everyone is going to 100 percent happy with how that board looks, but at this point, the goal is to get as many voices at the table as we can have and move forward,” she concluded.



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